When it Comes to Political Violence, the U.S. Sets an Example for Itself

Posted on January 14, 2011 by


The world as "downrange" for Gabrielle Giffords

There is Representative Gabrielle Giffords, in photos on this page, enjoying the fruit of shock and awe, definitely a representative. Of what? That’s one question. What are not the questions worth any/further debate are whether or not Sarah Palin may have inspired or encouraged the shooting in Tucson on 08 January–the answer, plainly, is no–or whether the “tone” of political discourse somehow foments or fosters such violence–and again the answer is decidedly no.

What is more intriguing is that members of a society such as the U.S. would even turn to such questions. Why would one expect that a society which meets the world through force, direct and indirect, threatened and implied, in order to achieve its political aims would somehow be immune to the forces which it nurtures and in which citizens are schooled daily? When the U.S. projects violence “abroad” (in the world in which it is immersed), where does that violence come from to begin with? If Americans did not believe that the best way to get things done was by opening fire, would they elect and abide by governments breaking all historical records for military spending when the U.S. no longer has a superpower rival? Its actions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia and elsewhere are not simply external, abroad, and away, as if one could so neatly remove them from the social system that created the conditions for political violence. Sarah Palin cannot be blamed: she is neither a system nor a culture, and let’s not even indulge those childish notions that suggest pictures of crosshairs on a map somehow directed someone to shoot. The “tone” cannot be blamed: some very polite people do awful things, and Americans ought to know this given that they have one such person in power. Changing the “tone” of debate is worthless while drone strikes are continually ordered by the White House.

The persistent problem here is misrecognition of the fact that empire and violence are fundamental organizing principles of this globally elongated entity known as the United States. “Changing the tone of debate in Washington” is a narrow, insular, nationalistic framing of how reality is perceived and processed. It is a line of argument favoured by those who implicitly know that they have an empire to preserve, and pretend that what we do “over there” is somehow disconnected from and unrelated to what we are right here. The insincerity of the statement is astounding, coming as it does after months of virulent death threats against Julian Assange and Wikileaks, printed and transmitted by the mainstream media themselves, without caution, restraint, or apology. Nor have officials in power done or said anything to tone down the voices of the gathering lynch mob, clearly basking as they are in the warm glow of the hatred they encouraged by careless accusations against an organization that has harmed no one and broken no laws. It’s not just that no separation between domestic discourse and international imperialism is impossible when it comes to setting a “tone,” it’s that one cannot have one tone for one matter and a radically different tone for another, coming out of the same mouth. Nor can one just repair tone while continuing to commit heinous acts of violence, and even celebrating them as “service.”

It is therefore no accident that Michelle Obama should issue a statement, presumably of consolation, that states: “We can also teach our children about the tremendous sacrifices made by the men and women who serve our country and by their families.” Always the resort back to the military, and the reduction of “service” to a career in violence to achieve political objectives. Force back your tears, we have a world to conquer and tame. We get to pick and choose our violence; we have the right to bring death, but we shouldn’t have to suffer it ourselves; we can live by the sword, but it is inconceivable that we should die by the sword. The state orchestrates violence on a massive scale, the media sanctify it, and citizens are trained to accept it as the norm. Who knows what finally motivated this one shooter to finally act, when others just imagine themselves acting. Perhaps it was basic American “common sense” telling him that to get things done, you need a gun. Perhaps it was his rebellion against a system where elections are made to matter so much because they are a substitute for democracy, where casting a ballot is submitting your signed resignation from the decision-making process–from this moment onward, someone else will make my decisions for me, they can do with me what they please. But then it should have been a massive throng of shooters who showed up on that day, so another key question is not just why this happens in the U.S., but why it does not happen more often.

There really is nothing new here. The U.S. has had political murders before, and will have them in the foreseeable future. Nor are the ideas expressed here novel, certainly not when I rely on awfully worn statements such as “living by the sword, and dying by the sword.” This reminds me of another familiar saying, uttered below by one man commenting on political violence, who suffered political violence, America’s finest ever public speaker and political intellect, so much so that calling him “American” seems to do him another injustice.

[scroll to 00:40]